What does an "offset" guitar mean?
A guitar described as being "offset" refers to the guitar body and literally means the upper and lower halves of the body are offset from each other. With the Fender and Squier Jaguar for example, you can see that the body "leans forward"; this is altogether different from the Stratocaster or Telecaster.
The easiest way to spot an offset body shape is to look at the bridge in relation to the body. When you look at the Jag, it appears that the bridge is not placed in the vertical center, but in fact it is. The offset body gives the illusion that the bridge isn't centered vertically because the top of the body isn't directly above the bridge but rather "leaned" slightly forward; this is part of the reason the offset shape is so interesting to begin with.
The idea behind the offset body was to make for a more comfortable guitar when played in the seated position, although it can obviously be played in standing position just as easily.
Speaking specifically about Fender/Squier models, yes they do have a distinctly different tone compared to Strats or Teles. There are several types of offsets Fender makes, but I'm going to specifically concentrate on the traditional style Jaguar and Jazzmaster. I'm also going to specifically feature Squier versions since those are the ones most people can afford.
Quick question answered: Is the Mustang an offset? Yes.
Short-scale 24-inch neck, Jaguar pickups (which are different from Strat single-coils), very "involved" electronics for pickup switching. GET THE MANUAL if you buy one of these, because you'll need it to figure out how all the controls work.
Standard-scale 25.5-inch neck, big huge Jazzmaster single-coil pickups, also with very "involved" electronics for pickup switching, but not as complicated as the Jag is. It still has those wonky upper controls near the top horn, but on the bottom is a simple three-way toggle selector instead of the on/off switching the Jag has in the lower area. Like the Jag, GET THE MANUAL for this one as well to figure out how the top controls work.
Which of the two is easier to play?
Jazzmaster. It has the standard scale neck, so the string tension is similar to a Strat or Tele and it has familiar fret spacing, and it has easier controls.
What most people do with the Jag is use a thicker string because the shorter scale makes the strings feel more "floppy". You'll notice this immediately as you'll be able to bend the strings really easily. Almost too easily. If you use .009 to .042 strings on a Jag and want a tension that feels more Strat-like, you switch to .0095 gauge or .010 gauge.
"Is the vibrato system as bad as I've heard?"
Fender calls the vibrato system a "non-locking floating vibrato", which means yes, the system "floats" and it takes a lot of getting used to.
If you don't know what a "floating" system means, here's a primer: On a Strat, if you took off the back plate and then loosened the two big claw screws going into the body, you would see that the bridge would "hover" and not be flush to the body, even with the strings tuned to standard tuning. That hovering is what's known as "floating". On the Strat, you can tighten the claw screws into the body so that the bridge never floats, which is commonly known as "decking a bridge" on a Stratocaster guitar. Jags and Jazzes however are meant to have vibrato systems that always float just because of the nature of how they work.
Typically, most Jag/Jazz players will instantly swap out the bridge for a Mustang bridge just so it stays put, but then encounter the issue of knocking the strings out of their saddle grooves constantly.
This is not to say the bridge/vibrato system is bad, but you'll spend time getting used to it. Floating vibrato systems are a bitch to deal with when you want to keep your strings in tune at first - however - once you learn how they work, you'll find the "slow vibrato" is something only the Jag and Jazz can do right. When you want those oh-so perfect single semitone bends, the vibrato on the Jag/Jazz is perfect for that.
The first thing I'd tell anyone who hasn't played a Jag or Jazz before but is intent on getting one is this: DO NOT use a hard pick or you will knock strings out of the saddle grooves constantly. Use a bendable thin pick until you get accustomed to how the guitar plays (you'll knock strings out a whole lot less, if at all), and then switch over to a medium or heavy pick if that's what you prefer.
The second thing I tell newcomers to the Jag and Jazz is to use the vibrato system often, because the guitar "likes it" when you use it. I know that doesn't sound very technical, but you'll understand what I mean once you start playing around with it. On Strats, most players avoid the tremolo system altogether. You don't have to do that on the Jag/Jazz. Grab that long bar and do some bends. Experiment with it. You'll find that the more you use it, the faster your strings will stretch out and stay in tune better. Yes, this is pretty much the exact opposite of how you play a Strat, but it's a fun learning experience and you'll get some cool tones out of it.
"Should I get the Jaguar or the Jazzmaster?"
If you like really bright single-coil sound and a short-scale neck, get the Jaguar.
If you prefer a more Strat-like neck and a more "growly" P90-like sound, get the Jazzmaster.
Most of you out there, said honestly, would probably prefer the Jazz over the Jag. But don't take my word for it. Try both. You may really love that short-scale neck on the Jag and prefer that one instead.
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